As all the US bloggers I read have sent their children to kindergarten, I’ve been pondering on school starting ages in different countries. There is a surprising (to me) amount of variability. According to this research paper, in Europe, the standard school starting age varies from four (Northern Ireland) to seven (Bulgaria, Estonia, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Sweden).
Here in Australia, we have variability by state, with the minimum age varying from 4 and six months (NSW) to 5 (Tasmania) and the maximum from 6 (in the year of school) to 6 and 8 months (in the year of school).
This isn’t just differences in definition of pre-school and school; it’s real differences in the age when formal learning starts.
Surprisingly, there appears to be no educational difference that can be discerned from starting school even with such wide ages. There is slight evidence (from US headstart programs) that disadvantaged children do better with a less academic more child-led preschool program (suggesting that starting formal school young is not better for disadvantaged children.
And the best attempt at a like for like comparison between UK (starting age 5) and Slovenia (starting age 6) suggested that, if anything, the Slovenian children were doing better by the age of 8.
My instinctive reaction to the much higher starting age in continental Europe is that it’s probably fine for the kids with a good home life, but not so much for the poorer children. This research indirectly refutes that, but only indirectly. Providing there is pre-school before school, it’s better for children to have less structured learning early. But that’s a big if.
Here in Australia, particularly in NSW, it’s actually quite hard to get into a pre-school for free if you don’t have the money to pay for it. So for poor children, the choice is school or nothing at all. And I’d be surprised if no learning opportunity is still better than a structured academic environment, even at (perhaps) too young an age.
But what this research suggests to me is that school should continue to be free and starting from the year you turn five. But that first year should be less academic, and more child led and play structured. And the year before school should also be similar, and funded Australia wide.